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The Pamir Highway Journey

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm F2.8 PRO • F9 • 1/400s • ISO 200

A little while back, I had the pleasure of going on one of the most scenic road trips on this planet – the Pamir Highway.

We spent eleven days exploring this part of the world. A one-hundred-year-old highway with lots of potholes and the most dramatic backdrop imaginable, the Pamir Highway crosses Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. No assignment, no client, no pressure – only the pleasure of exploring, discovering, and capturing our adventure.

The Gear:

For this trip, I had two OM-D E-M1 Mark II with me. One was equipped for filming and the other for photography. But I actually often ended up shooting photos on the filming camera too, as the 12-100mm F4 IS PRO is a rather versatile lens.

My configuration for this trip was:

Photo Setup: Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II + M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO, the M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO or the M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm F1.8

Video Setup: Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II + M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4 IS PRO with a video micro

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm F2.8 PRO • F7.1 • 1/250s • ISO 200

The Journey:

Our first stop wasn’t actually along the Pamir Highway at all. We stopped at a little village called Sary-Mogul, which turned out to be the last place with power and a solid roof before we reached Lenin Peak Base camp, which was our actually destination for day one. I spent the morning near Peak Lenin base camp exploring the nearby lakes and perfect reflections of the snow-capped peaks. It was one of those 360° all-round views. I shot more photos on that morning than on any other day of the trip. Golden light, reflecting lakes, rolling hills, deep yellow grass, and the roof of the world as a backdrop – not much more a photographer could ask for really.

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO • F5.6 • 1/125s • ISO 200

Soon we were on the famous M41 Pamir Highway, avoiding potholes and pointing the cameras in every possible direction, asking our driver to stop every 10–15 minutes. Nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of the landscapes there. Every evening we arrived at small villages along the way and spent the night at guest houses. People there have nothing. Usually we got soup and stale, mouldy bread for dinner and the same bread with jam for breakfast. It did, however, feel good to leave some of our money with the people there. The $20 we paid per night can go a long way up there. In the villages, I often ventured out with just one E-M1 Mark II + the M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm F1.8. It’s an incredibly small and subtle combo which enabled me to capture village life “as is” without feeling like I was intruding with a large camera.

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm F1.8 • F6.3 • 1/1250s • ISO 200

It is incredible to think that places like those even exist. Nothing grows there and the lakes are salty and don’t hold any fish. The people are totally reliant on what the trucks and drivers bring into the area. It is a tough life. The villages there were just perfect for street photography – the run-down, white houses contrasted beautifully with the dark surrounding landscapes. It is a kind of place you need to get lost in to find what’s worth capturing.

 

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm F1.8 • F6.3 • 1/400s • ISO 200

And don’t be fooled, the wires are old soviet era telephone lines – no such thing as power or traffic up there. The Pamir Highway runs in long straight stretches seemingly right up to the most impressive of mountain tops. It’s almost too scenic to take in. The colours are different around every corner and the wild textures never stop.

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4 IS PRO • F6.3 • 1/200s • ISO 200

On day four, our driver dropped us off about 40 km away from the nearest village and gestured: “I’ll meet you on the other side of the mountain in 6–8 hours.” Then he was gone. Without a map or itinerary, we set out and basically made our own path through the snow on the pass. To my relief, it wasn’t overly complicated to find the way, but the unexpected altitude of over 4,600 metres quickly turned that hike into an epic journey!

Nothing quite beats the morning light in the mountains at high altitude. There’s a crispness to the air that gives the light an unmatched quality. Add to that the lack of oxygen at over 4,000 metres, and I felt truly connected to that place, and capturing photos up there was a totally new experience.

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4 IS PRO • F6.3 • 1/200s • ISO 200

As for the locals, most of them are shy and don’t want their photo taken (and I respect that of course); others just didn't care about us being there. At some stage, this kid walked right up to me and wanted his photo taken, then just ran off. We exchanged nothing but a short smile and a few seconds of capturing the photo – probably my favourite portrait to date.

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm F1.8 • F1.8 • 1/800s • ISO 200

After a week above 4,000 metres and endless amounts of dust, we left the Pamir Highway over a pass to reach the lower parts of this area: the Wakhan Corridor. That is where Tajikistan and Afghanistan are separated by a river. It felt odd to finally see trees in the landscape again. Life has slightly more purpose here: farming vegetables, nuts, corn, and potatoes make up the daily routine. The wind however, seemed to constantly blow up this valley, taking the dust with it and making for some seriously beautiful golden light in the afternoon. Again, I couldn’t stop taking photos.

 

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO • F5.6 • 1/400s • ISO 200

That eleven-day journey was a trip that changed me for life. The toughness of life and the endless open road take on an entire new meaning there. The people are friendly and have mastered the skill of survival in one of the remotest parts of the world – the Pamirs.

Alongside the photos, I also created three episodes for my video channel: